The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.
The road to Sian Ka’an, is paved with rocks, dust, potholes and pain.
The plan was made after class on Friday. There were to be six of us:
- Red, the organizer (Germany)
- Fran, Red’s friend from PDC last year (San Francisco)
- Mars (Brazil)
- Paparazzi (Holland)
- Holly (Holland)
- Me (USA)
Red knew a tour guide. We met up with him at a cacao shop on the corner of Constituentes and 5th. Money was exchanged. A time was set: 7am on Sunday, meet by the school. Visions of Sian Ka’an danced in our heads: a protected biosphere over 5000 square kilometers. If you do the conversion from kilometers to miles, it equals “quite large, indeed”. Promises of turtles (tortugas) dolphins (delphines), birds (aves) and manatees (er… manatees) danced in our heads.
The first wrinkle came on Saturday night. A message from Red reminded everyone to set their clocks forward that night as Mexico’s Daylight Saving Time is April 7th. One less hour of sleep with a terribly early wake up call was not welcome news.
Personally, I wasn’t sure if my phone (which is also my alarm clock) would automatically adjust to the time or not. So doing the math backwards: be at school at 7, so wake up at 6, but in case my phone doesn’t actually set itself back automatically, be up at 5. Since my brain likes to stress about things like this, I found myself awake at 4:30. I checked my watch, checked my phone, and cursed the fact that all the electronics worked fine and set themselves correctly, yet now I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.
I arrived at the school just as Paparazzi and Mars were arriving, 7am on the nose. Soon after, Holly arrived, and this was the first sign of trouble because she lived in the same house as Red, yet Red was nowhere to be seen. She explained she had knocked on Red’s door, but since she didn’t answer, she assumed Red was already here. Also: no tour guide, and no Fran.
So: we waited:
Discussed during our wait:
- Jokes about “Mexican Time”. We were all punctual, but our teachers had warned us that “Mexican Time” means a very flexible definition of start times.
- Concerns about Red and Fran. Perhaps they were both out together on Saturday night, got quite lit up and were passed out at Fran’s house, and nobody knew where that was.
- Concerns about the fact that Red would not answer her phone, either.
Eventually Holly and Paparazzi decided to walk back to her host family’s house to check on Red again, perhaps ask the host parents if they had seen her come in last night. Mars and I held on to the curb. You know, to make sure it didn’t get away. While they were gone, our tour guide showed up. He explained something about having some trouble with the van or driver or something. Translation; either overslept, didn’t set the clock, or just “Mexican Time”.
Holly and Paparazzi returned, still missing Red, and no good leads on Fran. Of note at this point: Red arranged this trip, it was all her doing. She had planned on doing this trip last year when she was here, but she had a terrible car accident and was hospitalized for weeks, thus had to cancel it. There’s no way she would miss it this time. Concern mounted. Several more attempts were made to her phone, with no luck.
The fact that both Red and Fran were missing at this point was cause for ever escalating concern. However, there we were with a tour guide, a driver, and no leads on what to do next. So we had the driver go back to the house one more time, then circle back to the school in the dwindling hope that the two had arrived VERY late, but both to no avail. What else was to be done? At over an hour later than scheduled, we departed on the planned adventure with a gloomy cloud of dread hanging over.
The first stop was Tulum, about 45 minutes south of PDC. This is a ridiculously quaint little town, much like what I expect PDC was 15 years ago. You can already see that it is starting to bulge and swell from touristing. In 10 years it will likely be a vacation mecca much like PDC, with it’s own version of 5th avenue, it’s own party crossroads, etc. Right now, however, it is still pretty quiet and quaint. Get here while its still relatively unspoiled.
We stopped for “breakfast” at the local OXXO. For those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s basically 7-11, and there is one on every corner. I hear they start as crabgrass in the cracks of the pavement, then one day spring up into fully air-conditioned stores selling coke, cookies, and cigarettes. This particular one was offering a unique Mexican delicacy right by the hot dog roller machine and the nacho cheese dispenser: tamales. Steamed and wrapped in green leaves and everything. This HAD to be better than a hot dog from the roller machine, right?
Note: convenience stores sprinkle a special seasoning on any food they sell. It’s called “despair”. This tamale was no exception.
We piled back into the van, ready to embark on the real voyage to Sian Ka’an; a road which had been described as “bumpy”. Just as we were girding ourselves for the voyage, a rapid-fire discussion with the tour guide over the phone revealed that Red was, indeed, still alive. Hurrah! The Cloud of Dread was lifted! Only it was immediately replaced by it’s sister cloud, known as the Cloud of WTF? Red promised to explain, but asked us if we would wait for her if she leapt into a taxi and rocketed down the freeway to meet us. We were all so relieved she wasn’t dead in a ditch somewhere we eagerly agreed.
And so it was that an hour later, a profusely apologetic Red joined us in the van, explaining the she didn’t hear her phone’s alarm, she didn’t hear the phone calls, she didn’t hear the knocking, and no, she had NOT been out last night on a bender. She also assumed Fran was with us, but nobody had heard from Fran, and now it was over 2 hours late, so we took off anyway.
Finally we were underway.
Now, the road (as I have hinted at) is a bit bumpy. As it turns out, this description is precisely accurate in the same way as saying either the sun is rather warm or Jersey Shore is a tad vapid.
Luckily, our driver was familiar with the road and knew exactly how to swerve aggressively across the road to ensure we got the most out of every rock and pothole. Also, while many cars would take this road at a sedate pace in order to avoid structural damage, our driver was also training for the World Rally Championships, and thus spared no throttle as he careened our van down this dusty landscape.
Now, this road is along the Caribbean Ocean, and as such it is quite beautiful. I attempted to capture this beauty, but the afore-mentioned ragged pot-hole infested road and the drivers antics frustrated any attempt to do so. I only include these images as illustrations of the kind of jostling we experienced.
This road lasts quite a while. Well, that’s a lie: it lasts forever. You will come upon wide vistas showing the open ocean and promising beaches and think “oh my, we must be almost there”. Seconds later another mighty crater will swallow half your vehicle, and your driver will expertly heave out the side of it, sending you airborn and weightless for a brief second before crashing back down onto the seat. This will repeat many times. You will probably go through at least one, if not two birthdays while on this road. I would recommend you bring cake, but it would not survive the first pothole.
We did eventually stop at a beautiful spot which our guide explained was called “Bocapila”, where “Boca” means “Mouth” and “Pila” means (here he made many gestures to indicate where you would put water and boil it). So, I think he meant “the mouth of the pot”, but I can’t find any good fit for “pila” in translation software, so I may have misheard him. Or maybe my brain was just suffering from the concussions. Anything is possible. Regardless, this was a lovely spot, and a welcome respite from the road.
After five minutes of this, we were back in the van. Remember what I said about the road, above? Yeah, that happened a lot more. I developed a deep respect for our driver’s ability to really deliver the most from every bump. Or maybe that was a deep bruise. I often confuse the two.
At noon: we finally reached the promised land, Punta Allen:
It was here at Punta Allen that we learned a few things:
- Holly uttered the memorable phrase “if this place was a boy, I would be in love”
- We got the first taste of how well equipped Paparazzi was: a camera phone, a digital camera with telephone lens, and a GoPro.
- We had a lunch served buffet style by a local that blew away any and all expectations. It was simply fish, chicken fajitas, veggies, rice, and some other stuff, but it was amazing. Everyone put away at least 2 plates of food.
After lunch, we boarded a boat to see the best that Sian Ka’an had to offer.
As mentioned before, Sian Ka’an is big. Really big. And the water is that amazing blue-green clear water that pictures just won’t do justice to. After a while, I stopped trying with my camera phone and hoped I could steal pictures from Paparazzi. As of this writing, I still have not done this. So, you get verbal descriptions. Lucky you. One shot of the sea as the boat was taking us out:
Now, we were promised wildlife. Our tour guide delivered. He stood at the stern of the speedboat, rope in one hand, yelling out directions to the driver. He steered us to a spot where we played tag with a giant manatee in shallow waters. If you haven’t seen one of these in real life, they are huge. Several times this one surfaced to look at us, seeming to say “look, I’m not sure what you are or what you are doing, but I’m pretty sure you are following me and it’s kind of creeping me out”. We eventually let her go on her way.
Next he steered us to a couple sea turtles. These guys are much faster in the water than on land. Again, the water is so clear here that you can see them even when they are well underneath the surface. They weren’t quite as accommodating of our viewing as Madame Manatee was, but it was cool seeing them move around with all the grace that they lack on land.
Next, and most importantly for me, we pulled along side a couple of dolphins that were out for a leisurely swim. They would frequently pop up above the water, giving great photo ops for our eager cameras. I manned Paparazzi’s telephoto camera while he dangled his GoPro over the side in the water to capture video. Hopefully I’ll get my hands on some of the footage in the next few days.
After all that excitement, our tour guide took us to a bird sanctuary in the mangrove forests. These forests grow in salt water, and birds roost in the tops. Mangroves are pretty fascinating on their own, but I won’t bore you with the details, I’m sure you know how to use Wikipedia.
Now, while I thought the dolphins were the highlight for me, it turns out I was mistaken. We also did some snorkeling for about 1/2 hour over some fantastic brain coral and swam through several schools of varying colored fish, and then our tour guide promised to take us to “una alberca natural”, basically a natural swimming pool.
I have never seen anything like this. The boat dropped us off in crystal green water that for about a square half mile was between 1 and 4 feet deep. This was pristine, unmolested water, sand and coastline. The water was the perfect temperature, and we could look around and pretend that this enormous pool was made just for us. It was far too perfect to just exist naturally.
We attempted a group picture to prove we were there. The tour guide counted to 3 and said “jump”. Me being as good at directions as always, it appears I managed to raise my hands, and that’s about it. This results in a great photo where I am the shortest person around. New perspectives!
After this, we finally headed back home. I should mention here that this means we got to re-do the excitement of the Road of Doom, but it wasn’t quite as bad when you knew what to expect. And thus my message to you: if you end up going to Sian Ka’an: go in with both eyes wide open: the road is long, it is bumpy, and the wonders you will see make it totally worth it.
Oh, and Fran? Turns out she overslept her alarm as well. So, maybe don’t plan a major all-day trip early in the morning after Daylight Saving Time. Worth considering.